Business Featured Food & Drink

Life on the Corner: Italian Grocery Stores

Here is a picture from my North End postcard collection. It depicts an Italian grocery store or alimentari probably in the early 1960’s.

When I was growing up in the North End there were dozens of these stores and every family had its favorite. My grandmother, Colomba, liked Johnny Gaeta’s store on Salem Street near the corner of Prince because he would deliver groceries and she could play the daily number with the delivery boy (ragazzo). When we moved to Lewis Street my mother used Sammy Scolas on North Street or Iacopucci’s on Fleet. When you bought prosciutto at Iacopucci’s they would slice it by hand with a long sharp knife, just like in Italy.

Martignetti’s on Salem Street was the largest Italian grocery store and was so crowded on Saturdays you could hardly get in the front door. Martignettis also sold wine and my grandfather, Vito, would always have a gallon of Carlo Rossi red in the ice box. He would dip his finger into his glass and let me suck the wine when I was just a toddler. Great remedy for a teething infant.

Look at the products available in the picture. On the right are various salumi and a big provolone cheese hanging from a ceiling hook. The electric slicer stands ready to help make a sandwich or slice some cold cuts to go. On the back wall you can see bottles of wine vinegar, honey and olive oil as well as cans of beans, capers, olives; all the things needed to cook a meal. There are sacks of polenta and rice and boxes of laundry detergent, items necessary for day to day life. In our little North End village women shopped every day and the items available in stores like this were ideally suited for our peasant life and diet. I never recall seeing tourists in any of these shops.

We still have Italian grocery shops in the North End and I love shopping in them but the merchandise they carry is very different and much more expensive. I enjoy teasing Guy Martignetti who owns Salumeria Italiana on Richmond St about the precious balsamic vinegar he sells in small perfume bottles that cost more than a week’s groceries in 1955. My mother and grandmother only used Gargano wine vinegar imported in bulk from Puglia. It was so acidic it would take the rust off nails but there was nothing more delicious than a salad of scarola (curly escarole), tomatoes, Filippo Berio olive oil and Gargano vinegar.

I don’t know the name of the store in this picture and I would appreciate it if someone could identify it. Quiz. What is the young man carrying on his head?

Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.

25 Replies to “Life on the Corner: Italian Grocery Stores

    1. Bravo, Sherman, it is a mortadella. This specialty sausage dates back to Roman times when it was made by grinding pork meat in large motar and pestles. Southern Italians add other things to it such as pistachio nuts, green olives or myrtle berries.

    1. Good guesses, Sonny. Vito Aluia thinks it may be Billy & Felix’s on the corner of Salem and Cooper Sts.

  1. I love Polcari’s. The gentlemen that own it are so nice. When I come back to visit the N.E. it’s the first place I go. The tourists love it too. They sell online to all over the U.S.

  2. Nick,
    The young man is holding a Carando Mortadella on his head. In those days (1975-1976) it was common to have Mortadella that weighted 50 pounds. It had to be cut in half in order to be put on the deli slicer. The aroma from those old time delis was unbelievable, not like today, when all your salamis ,capicollo, provolone and prosciutto can’t be hanged to dry to acquire that delectable aroma. This picture was taken at 66 Salem Street, the store was called Salem Food Store and it was owned by Franco Ursino. It was taken by The Globe, as part of the “Where’s Boston”exhibit that was showcased at the Pru for the Bicentennial Celebration.
    I know all of this because that is me posing the jumbo Mortadella.

      1. Nick
        Where and how did you find this picture? The original that I had, which I have since misplaced, was printed in the Globe. The photo also included Joe Pace’s farther Nicolo and his nephew Paul, who now has Paulii on Salem. And it also included Annette Bova holding a basket of bread. If you can possibly retrieve a copy, I would greatly appreciated. Thank you.

        1. Vincent, I bought the picture on line as a post card. I digitized it and I can send you a copy of you give me your email address. Send it to Matt and he’ll pass it on to me.

  3. Nothing to do with Mortadella, but one interesting Italian grocery (at least in the 1950s) was owned by the Pappas brothers, on the corner of Richmond and North, opposite Cirace’s. The Pappas brothers were Greek, and were very active in Republican politics. One of them, John, if I recall right, was sent by Eisenhower as a special ambassador to the inauguration of an Argentine President. Since the president didn’t speak English, the two spoke in Italian, in which John was fluent. as was the Argentinian. John later became ambassador to… oops, I forget which counntry. The site of their old store has been converted to apartments. Thanks for the memories, Nick.

    1. Thanks, Bob.
      Another famous grocery store chain began in the Jewish North End. In 1914 the Rabinowitz family opened a store on Salem St called Economy Grocery Store. The family changed their name to Rabb, intermarried with the Goldbergs and in 1947 founded the Stop & Shop supermarkets.
      Many immigrant families got a start in the food business. Because Italians were the last ethnic group to populate the North End we tend to think it was always Italian but the Irish and Jews were always an integral part of our neighborhood.
      In so many ways the history of the North End is the history of America.

  4. Nicky,

    One other popular salumeria was Gloria Food Store across from what is now Ernesto’s Pizzeria. The two men who operated the business was Guido and Larry! Another resource for you.

    Domenic Piso

    1. Thanks, Donny, I forgot about them. Wasn’t it called Gloria Chain Store? I think they had other locations.
      The Boston “I” was another popular grocery store on Hanover St near the Blue Front.

  5. Nick, Your note makes me think another immigrant group to the North End, the Portuguese. If you look closely at the brick-faced building opposite the gents’ club on Fleet St (near La Summa), you’ll see the remaining sign “Hotel Fayal — xxx Rodriguez, Prop.” Fayal is an island in Portugal’s Azores, from which many fishermen and whalers emigrated to the Massachusetts. The owner of the building told me she was careful to preserve the paint, for historic reasons. Good for her! A friend who is Armenian told me her Armenian grand-father had a grocery on Commercial St, sort of across and down the street from Golden Goose. By some coincidence, it’s a block or so from the Armenian genocide Memorial on the Greenway. And one more: I remember in the 1950s shopping at a Swedish grocery on Hanover St, where City Hall Plaza now is. I loved the Swedish coffee. that I could buy there, and never knew that one day I’d live in Sweden.

  6. Nick,

    Mortadella and I think the store is either Polcari’s or Pace I lived on 115 Salem Street, my maiden name was Josephine Maniscalco my married name is Josephine Mucci

    I went to school with a Robert Dello Russo any relation

    1. Josephine, I lived at 109 Salem for several years. My brother is Robert and my cousin is also Robert.

    2. Josephine,
      Read my earlier comment about this picture and you’ll get the correct story behind it. I lived at 32 Charter and later at 22 Sheafe and I attended St. Anthony’s, The Eliot and The Mickey’s.
      Vinnie Cutone

Comments are closed.